Championship racer speaks out against Middle East homophobia

Anti-LGBTQ laws in the Middle East are facing passionate opposition from seven-time world champion Formula 1 racer Lewis Hamilton.

"Love is Love", says Lewis Hamilton's rainbow helmet. (Photo courtesy of Pink News and Getty Images)
“Love is Love”, says Lewis Hamilton’s rainbow helmet. (Photo courtesy of Pink News and Getty Images)

Lewis, who was edged out of first place in this past weekend’s race in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, has been wearing a rainbow helmet to show his support for human rights and opposition to draw attention to the region’s intolerance for LGBTQ+ people. He also wore it last month at the Formula 1 race in Qatar.

In Qatar, consensual same-sex intercourse between men is punishable by up to seven years in prison.

In Saudi Arabia: “There is no codified Penal Law in Saudi Arabia, with Sharia law being the law of the land. All sexual relations outside of marriage are illegal and the penalty for a married man who engages in consensual same-sex intercourse is generally understood to be death by stoning,” according to ILGA, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association.

Lewis Hamilton (Photo courtesy of Sky News)
Lewis Hamilton (Photo courtesy of Sky News)

Hamilton has said he did not feel comfortable about racing in Saudi Arabia’s grand prix because of concerns about human rights in the kingdom.

He felt “duty-bound” to speak out, accusing Saudi Arabia of using the event to distract from scrutiny about its ‘pretty terrifying” abuses, Sky News reported.

“Me just wearing a helmet isn’t going to change the world,” Hamilton told Sky Sports. “But I hope that whether it’s kids here are more aware of it, kids back home are more aware of the scenarios in these places.

“Maybe kids back home in England will be studying it more at school and learning more about inclusivity.”

Hamilton’s stance reflects a shift in Formula One’s willingness to address issues that it ignored in the past, according to Richard Morris, co-founder of Racing Pride, an organization aimed at challenging negative stereotypes and creating visibility for LGBT people in motorsport.

“There’s been a big shift in Formula One that we’re seeing across a number of drivers and teams where there is now a willingness to address these topics of inclusion,” Morris told Reuters.

“I think it’s a really important shift … Formula One is visiting these territories which have different human rights records to what we have in Europe but continuing to champion its values as it does so. And that’s really powerful.”

Reuters also reported:

The Aston Martin team partnered with Racing Pride last June, Pride Month, with rainbow halos on its cars.

The team’s four times world champion Sebastian Vettel wore rainbow sneakers in Hungary and again in Saudi Arabia, where he donned a “Same Love” T-shirt on the starting grid as well as racing with a Pride flag helmet design.

The German organised a go-kart race for women, who were not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia until 2018, ahead of the grand prix in Jeddah.

Morris noted that Mick Schumacher, son of seven times world champion Michael, had also worn a Pride T-shirt in Saudi Arabia on the media day.

“Visibility and representation isn’t everything, and it doesn’t change things necessarily overnight, but it does begin conversations that I think are important,” said Morris, one of few openly-gay professional racers.

Hamilton has used his platform as the sport’s most successful driver of all time to champion equality.

Formula One launched a “We Race As One” campaign last year but the Liberty Media-owned sport has been heavily criticised by campaigners for racing in countries with poor human rights records.

Human Rights Watch said last month that Saudi Arabia had “a history of using celebrities and major international events to deflect scrutiny from its pervasive abuses.”

Saudi Arabia’s government denies allegations of human rights abuses and says it is protecting national security from extremists and external actors.

Morris said racing in Saudi Arabia did provide the opportunity to speak out.

“Of course Lewis is speaking to his global fanbase, to his supporters, to allies that already exist around the world and people who agree with his message intrinsically,” Morris added.

“But also he’s showing a support that perhaps otherwise wouldn’t be there within the region.

“He’s raising this issue of human rights and starting those conversations. And I think once you start those conversations, there’s then a need for responses.

“Ultimately discrimination and hatred really comes from not knowing people who you are hating, who you are discriminating against.

“I think the more we can shine a light on these issues and start these conversations and then bring in visible representation of these minority communities as well, the more we can educate people towards inclusion.”

 

Written by Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart is a 45-year journalism veteran living in Southern California. He is the president of the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, which supports LGBTQ+ rights advocacy journalism, and editor / publisher of Erasing 76 Crimes. Contact him at [email protected]

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